Desert Stages' Hairspray Holds Strong

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's Hairspray is, I've decided, made of Teflon. It would appear that nothing can hurt this oft-produced musical version of the 1988 John Waters film, a Broadway winner that's been produced here twice this season already (and is about to take the stage at the Herberger in a presumably cleaned-up version by Valley Youth Theatre). Not even an ensemble of young singer-dancers who aren't necessarily one or both of these things can harm Hairspray. Nor can a chronically malfunctioning sound system. Or canned backing tracks of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman's maniacally catchy score, which helps tell Waters' story about Baltimore race relations and a teenage television dance program of the early 1960s.

Director Terry Helland has restructured this frenetic musical into a stunning theater-in-the-round burlesque, with performers bursting from four corners of the room, wiggling and writhing their way through production numbers and silly setups, often in towering Dynel wigs and switches, before dashing off to be re-costumed and then blasting back onto the stage.

I remember liking Lizzie Baggleman in an also-ran production of The Wedding Singer last July at this same theater, and hoped I'd one day see her in a role better suited to her big talents. Now I have. Her Tracy Turnblad is a chipper salute to song-and-dance routines, teen angst, and Clearasil commercials. Baggleman brings the proper earnestness to a role that can, in lesser hands, become a campy caricature. On the night I was there, not even a leg injury kept this "teenaged jezebel" from making like Ginger Rogers in several strenuous dance routines, and although her headset mic malfunctioned, she made each note she sang bounce off the walls of a crowded room.

The cast isn't entirely first-rate, but several performers are excellent. Lucas Coatney plays frumpy Edna Turnblad for laughs but never chews scenery, and Mitchell Vantrease is a winner as smiley Seaweed J. Stubbs, whose dance moves outshine his vocals. Jimmy Shoffman makes the most of several ensemble roles, among them an especially ridiculous women's wear dealer with a John Waters mustache. But none of the players, Baggleman included, can compete with tiny Phoebe Koyabe, who was so charming as wily Little Inez that I found myself watching her even when she wasn't singing or dancing or serving attitude, all of which she does with far too much style for someone so young. She's a standout in a better-than-average cast of a show that's frankly overproduced this season. But even if you've already seen Hairspray this year, Desert Stages' version deserves a visit.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela